On Street Foods and Social Movements

hayden-mexico-monumentThe last several weeks have been politically important and tumultuous here in Mexico.  The presidential elections, held last Sunday, July 1st, were marred by allegations of fraud, corruption, and vote-buying by Enrique Peña Nieto, the alleged victor and candidate of the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), the political party that governed Mexico for seventy years, until 2000 in what writer Mario Vargas Llosa famously called la dictadura perfecta.  A student-led movement known as #yosoy132 has been working since before the elections to raise awareness of anti-democratic behavior on the part of the PRI, and to challenge limited and biased media coverage on the part of the country’s largest media outlets (Televisa and TV Azteca), which they say have clearly favored Peña Nieta and demonized the leftist candidate, Andres Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) for years.  Billing itself as a pro-democratic rather than party-affiliated movement, #yosoy132 organized multiple large-scale protests prior to the elections, as well as a televised debate between the presidential candidates (Peña Nieto declined to participate).  In the days since the elections were held and Peña Nieto was declared the winner by the IFE (Federal Electoral Institute), there have been numerous marches held by various pro-democracy and anti-PRI/anti-Peña Nieto activists to protest fraud and corruption during the elections.

The question of food has been particularly important in the last week since the general elections were held, as Mexico’s largest grocery store chain, Soriana, has become a key symbol of electoral fraud.  Multiple reports have surfaced of citizens being given 500-peso Soriana “gift cards” that were paid for out of PRI party accounts.  When rumors began to circulate that the cards would not be honored, there was such a rush on certain Soriana branches that they were forced to close down temporarily to restore order.  While the PRI and Peña Nieto’s campaign vociferously deny the allegations of vote-buying, there is a great deal of material and testimonial evidence to suggest that the practice was widespread.  The fact that people were apparently selling their votes for grocery money, moreover, has not been lost on many Mexicans with whom I have spoken, who have expressed concern over the ability of peoples living in poverty to participate fully in the democratic process and not succumb to corruption.

hayden-mexico-bikewomanBut what does any of this have to do with the informal economy of street food and vendors, the subject of my research this summer?  To begin with, one of the aspects of street food consumption that first interested me was the implication of this form of consumption for the re/production of various forms of sociality and solidarity.  Some scholars, among them Sidney Mintz and Pierre Bourdieu, have suggested that the increased consumption of food outside of the home could lead to a breakdown of class consciousness and social identity that is formed through commensality and ritualized mealtimes.  Indeed, eating outside of the home can be seen as a way in which bonds of kinship are subsumed by market pressures.  But eating on the street, it seems to me, may engender different forms of solidarity (between workers who might otherwise be isolated from each other in office environments, or between vendors and neighbors, or between networks of vendors, and so forth), and so one of the things that I have set out to look at is who interacts and how they interact when eating on the street.  As the elections loomed large, I noticed people everywhere talking about politics hayden-mexico-jicaletas(something, my Mexican friends tell me, would not have been the case twenty or even ten years ago, as political repression under the PRI’s leadership was more feared).  People who did not know each other would perch on stools on the sidewalk, and while waiting for their quesadillas or gorditas, talked about politics, sharing the latest news or gossip related to a given candidate, sharing their thoughts and apprehensions.  While much has been made of the role of social media in helping to organize new social movements (in Egypt, Wall Street, and beyond), the circulation of information among relative strangers and acquaintances in interactions such as those which I have observed in street stalls might also be politically powerful (a different take on the Habermasian public sphere, perhaps?).

hayden-mexico-quenocompraBut people do not only bring politics to street food stalls; the vendors themselves bring food to spaces of political action.  I have been to four political rallies since I arrived, all of which have taken place on the streets between el Ángel de la independencía and el Zócalo in Mexico City’s downtown.  At each rally, as hundreds of thousands of people flowed down the streets, carryingbanners and chanting (my favorite: ¡el que no brinca es Peña!), hundreds of vendors also made up part of the tapestry of dissent, selling their foods along the way.  One could find anything from roasted corn on the cob to jicaletas (jicama wedges served on a stick like a popsicle and coated in flavored powders) to tacos (7 for 10 pesos!) to fresh squeezed juices.  As I spoke with assorted vendors, it became clear that while some of them were there explicitly as part of the political action as supporters as well as vendors, others were there to make some money off of the rally.  Even those vendors who were not supporters of the #yosoy132 movement or AMLO, however, were part of the masses, were contributing to the creation of a politicized public space, which in Mexico entails food.

hayden-mexico-pushcartThe engagement of street vendors in local and national politics obviously extends beyond their presence as sellers-of-foods in particular events or situations.  Despite belonging to the informal economy and not having legal recognition from the state, street vendors often belong to unions, which have their own leadership structures and affiliate with different political parties in clientelistic relationships.  Such patron-client relationships are a legacy of the seven decades of PRI-rule, and have been implicated in the alleged voter fraud of these latest elections, since often it is in the workplace that people are told for whom to vote and are held accountable for doing so.  To what extent this happens in the informal economy and vendors’ unions is something I need to explore further.  Clearly the intersection between politics, consumption, and sociality in the space of street food is complex, but an analysis of the relations and interactions enable through these networks is necessary, I think, to understand the political, in addition to nutritional, implications of eating on the street.  More on interactions and networks to come…

Posted by Tiana Bakić Hayden – PhD Candidate in Anthropology at NYU

One thought on “On Street Foods and Social Movements

  1. i’m really enjoying reading these blogs as i am currently living in Mexico this year and about to embark on my own thesis in the cultural importance of the taqueria in mexico. it would be endlessly useful to talk to you and compare notes on what we’ve observed about the subject here in mexico. if you would be interested in this then please let me know!

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